If you listen carefully, you'll hear something unusual on the presidential campaign trail this year. Democratic candidates are talking a lot about the lack of affordable housing, an issue that rarely, if ever, comes up in an election. They're trying to tap into a growing national concern, as well as a potential voting bloc.
Several of the candidates have offered extensive plans that they say would address the housing shortage that is affecting millions of low and middle income voters. They've proposed everything from refundable tax credits for overburdened renters, to spending billions of dollars on new affordable housing. They've also raised the issue as a prime example of racial and income inequality, another focus of the Democratic campaigns.
"It is not acceptable that, in communities throughout the country, wealthy developers are gentrifying neighborhoods and forcing working families out of the homes and apartments where they have lived their entire lives," Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who's running for the Democratic nomination, wrote recently in the Las Vegas Sun.
And California Sen. Kamala Harris was met with cheers at a gathering of housing advocates in Washington, D.C. earlier this year when she said, "The right to housing should be understood to be a fundamental right, a human right, a civil right."
All of this is music to the ears of Diane Yentel, executive director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
"We've seen candidates talking more about the crisis and the solutions than we have I think in entire presidential campaigns in history," she says.
Yentel says in the past, she and other advocates would listen to presidential debates and town halls waiting for the candidates to say anything about the affordable housing shortage, "and just sort of hang on for any word even remotely related to housing. Like, oh, he said 'community' or he said 'house.'"
But until this year, she says they never heard about housing policy or possible solutions.
Yentel thinks it's a reflection of the severity of the problem. Rents around the country have been rising faster than wages and almost half of all renters now have to spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing. About 11 million of those households spend more than 50 percent of their incomes on rent. Low-income families feel the most pain, but the problem has also started to creep up into the middle class.
"For voters who are in the rental housing market, the cost of housing is as big an economic stressor as virtually anything else," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, whose polling has found housing costs are an issue in every region of the country, as well as in cities, rural areas and suburbs.
And, he says, the concern is growing. When Garin asked voters in 2016 if they thought housing affordability was a problem where they lived, 39 percent said it was a fairly serious or very serious problem. This year, that number is 60 percent.
"That's quite a change over the course of one election cycle," he says.
Perhaps of more interest to candidates, 75 percent of all voters this year say they would be more likely to vote for someone who has a plan to make housing more affordable, which may explain why candidates are lining up to offer plans.
"People are experiencing an affordable housing crisis whether they're Republican or Democrat, whether they live in a red community or a blue community, and whether they're middle class or they're working poor, whether they're white or black," says Julian Castro, who was the secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama and announced his housing plan this week. He says it would not only address the lack of affordable housing, but would effectively eliminate homelessness in eight years.
Castro would provide housing vouchers to all families who need help. Right now, only one in four families eligible for housing assistance gets it. He would also increase government spending on new affordable housing by tens of billions of dollars a year and provide a refundable tax credit to the millions of low- and moderate-income renters who have to spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing.
Among the other proposals:
- Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren would also provide a refundable tax credit for overburdened renters. She also calls for a $500 billion federal investment over the next ten years in new affordable housing. She says her plan would create three million new units and lower rents by ten percent. Warren would also give grants to first-time homebuyers who live in areas where black families were once excluded. "Everybody who lives or lived in a formerly red-lined district can get some housing assistance now to be able to buy a home," Warren told attendees at the She the People Presidential Forum in Houston this spring.
- New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker would provide financial incentives to encourage local governments to get rid of zoning laws that limit the construction of affordable housing. He would also provide a renter's tax credit, legal assistance for tenants facing eviction and protect against housing discrimination, something he's made part of his personal appeal. "When I was a baby, my parents tried to move us into a neighborhood with great public schools, but realtors wouldn't sell us a home because of the color of our skin," Booker recounts in an online campaign video.
- Sen. Kamala Harris has also introduce a plan for a renters' tax credit of up to $6,000 for families making $100,000 or less.
- New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has signed on to both the Harris and Warren plans, which have been introduced as legislation.
One challenge for Democrats is finding a way to pay for their ambitious and costly plans. Warren and Castro have both said they would repeal some of the tax breaks enacted two years ago for corporations and higher-income individuals.
President Trump has argued that those tax cuts are helping the economy, which in turn helps all Americans. The administration has said it hopes to increase the supply of affordable housing by providing tax incentives for construction in economically distressed areas, called Opportunity Zones, and by eliminating restrictive zoning laws.
Another challenge for Democrats is getting low-income renters out to vote. They're generally younger and more transient, and tend not to turn out as much as wealthier homeowners.
That's a concern for Charise Genas of Boston, who was at a candidate forum in Washington, DC this week sponsored by the Poor People's Campaign.
"I even pulled my kids by their ears saying, 'You're voting,' and they tell me 'Ma, my vote don't count.' I say 'That's a lie, Every vote counts," says Genas.
She thinks the lack of affordable housing is the number one issue for many voters this year, including herself. Genas says her grown children currently have their own places to live, but "they're saying, 'Ma, I might have to come home because the rent is so high.'"